Aboard the USS Constitution

Inside Reagan's Navy

On this day, the restored Statue of Liberty was rededicated by President Reagan in a gala event that featured an in-gathering of naval vessels from around the world, many of them full-rigged “tall ships.” I could have gone but jumped at the chance to do something that in an ordinary year John Lehman or Jim Goodrich always did: represent the Navy Department on the annual “turnaround cruise” of USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) in Boston Harbor. Then and still today, Old Ironsides remains a fully commissioned vessel of the US Navy with a commanding officer and crew. Every year on Independence Day, the ship (built in 1797) is hauled by tugs to a point in mid-harbor, turned around, and returned to the dock the other way around so that she will weather evenly.

Constitution crew member, wearing a naval uniform from 1812 with a tasseled straw sombrero, picked me up at the hotel and drove me the short distance to the Charlestown Navy Yard. In the headquarters building I met my fellow special guests, most notably the consul general of Japan. We were then led on board in reverse rank, passing through a double line of gents in Revolutionary War uniforms, dipping colonial flags, and past a line of sailors who held their broad-brimmed hats at arm’s length – a salute called the “hoozah” – and on board ship.

A tug pushed us out in the harbor, where we picked up an escort of Coast Guard, police, fire, and pleasure craft. I was below, touring the gun and berthing decks, when Constitution started firing a 21-gun salute to the flag, answered by an old fort on one of the harbor islands. Sailors in old-style dungarees and new-style goggles and earmuffs fired the shells in what an officer called “the world’s only breech-loading muzzle loaders” – iron guns cast in the 1920s to resemble the ship’s original armament.

When we returned to the pier, I stopped at the foot of the brow to receive a 17-gun salute. The battery caused the crowd to jump and squeal, and the smoke from the black powder made the air as thick and gray as off. When the firing ended, I stumbled blindly off, waving the cloud away.

Read more in Inside Reagan’s Navy, available on Amazon and at Texas A&M University Press.

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